First Tonsure, Minor Orders, Eye Infections and a WDTPRS POLL

The minor orders were suppressed in the Latin Church in 1972.

Who knows if, down the line, through some gravitational pull exerted through the slowly increasing use of the Extraordinary Form and a greater focus on continuity with our tradition, they will be restored.

The way to minor orders was opened by reception of the tonsure.  Tonsure is from the fun Latin verb tondeo, totondi, tonsum, “to cut, sheer”.  Great perfect form, nonne? Latin for barber is tonsor.  In ancient Rome something known to everyone, to every “Tom, Dick, and Harry” as we say today, was “notum lippis et tonsoribus… known by people with eye infections and barbers” (cf. Horace Satire 1.7,3; Terence Phormio 89; Plautus Amph. 1013).

I have written before about the artist Daniel Mitsui and his interesting art.  In his recent mailing he shows a new image he has made of the ceremony of the tonsure, which seminarians in “traditional” groups such as the FSSP still receive. Here is Mitsui’s tonsure depiction.


This was commissioned by a seminarian.  You can find more of his art HERE.  Great gift ideas there.

First Tonsure, depicted above, used to make a man a cleric.  In the Latin Church a man now becomes a cleric with ordination to the diaconate.  This applies also to traditional groups who used only the older, pre-Conciliar books.

Tonsures vary in size.  The monastic was usually the whole crown of the head.  The more modern tonsure for clerics out in the world came to be a shaved spot about the size of a silver dollar.

Maintaining the tonsure was serious business for a cleric.  In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, a cleric was required to maintain it.  If he didn’t, he was to be warned by his superior or bishop.  If he didn’t restore the tonsure within within he could lose the clerical state.  That could mean loss of income from benefices, etc.  And, yes, it was a way to keep clerics both under the bishop’s thumb and, importantly, out of trouble.  The tonsure identified a man as a cleric even if he changed his clothing.

Let’s have a little WDTPRS POLL.

Choose your answer and then give your reasons in the combox.

Should the Latin Church restore First Tonsure and the Minor Orders?

View Results

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Centristian says:

    When I was tonsured, it was a matter of the bishop clipping small bits of hair from the front, back, and two sides of the head, and one more from the center (the shape of a Cross, in other words). Afterwards you just looked as if you’d gotten a bad haircut. The bald-spot tonsure had apparently been done away with at some point before 1972.

    I would like to see the minor orders restored. For a seminarian they serve as helpful milestones toward priestly ordination. With each order received a seminarian gets the sense that he is moving toward a goal and that he has taken on a new degree of responsibility within the household of the clergy. Minor orders, it seems to me, make of the seminary experience more than simply a textbook and lecture education, they make it a liturgical journey and a process of true sacerdotal formation.

  2. JPManning says:

    In a book about the Carthusians called, ‘An infinity of little hours,’ there is a passage describing the experience of a novice monk who had to leave the monastery to join seminarians at the Cathedral to receive some minor orders (I think it was doorkeeper). Reading that it seemed to me that if we had more occasions for the Church to gather together and celebrate these minor orders then they would be a great chance to encourage more vocations.

  3. Dubya Ay-See says:

    Maintaining tonsure (the “bald spot”) was not requried in the United States and some other non-Catholic countries where it was thought that the tonsure would single-out Catholic clerics for ridicule, or worse.

  4. Fr Martin Fox says:

    I would be fine with restoring the minor orders, but I’m trying to picture what a restored tonsure would be like for me as a diocesan priest. I frequently am tardy getting a hair cut generally (as is the case right now!), so I am unsure what maintaining a tonsure would mean. I do have a growing bald spot, but I suspect that doesn’t count!

    I am now fascinated to see what this looks like. I cannot recall ever meeting a non-religious cleric whose tonsure I noticed.

  5. disco says:

    I say bring back the friar tuck look. You’d probably get the ancillary benefit of expanded biretta use among the clergy.

  6. APX says:

    @Fr. Martin Fox

    I frequently am tardy getting a hair cut generally (as is the case right now!), so I am unsure what maintaining a tonsure would mean.

    I would imagine that it could be a pretty simple DIY maintenance job with an electric trimmer with the guard removed and a homemade guide made out of a paper plate with an appropriate sized hole cut in the centre.

    What I’m curious about is how one would be tonsured if he had no hair to begin with.

  7. APX says:

    I am now fascinated to see what this looks like. I cannot recall ever meeting a non-religious cleric whose tonsure I noticed.
    I believe the Holy See has given priests from English-speaking countries permission to not maintain it, but the second priest from the left has one that has been maintained until ordination, whereas others have not.

  8. Just look at pictures of the Papal Court during the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s and you will see that it was possible (and in Rome, possibly even required) to maintain the tonsure. In these pictures, the tonsure had the shape of a circle (size of a medium-size host) on the crown of the head.

    As far as I know now, the FSSP strongly discourages its Seminarians from maintaining the torsure. It probably might be seen as a sign of “too much piety” or “show-offism,” which suscipion (rightly or wrongly) seems to be common among FSSP circles, along with limited involvement of lay men during ceremonies.

    However, there are pictures that show that one of their Priests (seen frequently in pictures of FSSP ceremonies in Rome and Germany) does keep it. He also wears buckled shoes and tufted sash. Who would have guessed that not only people in the ICK are “guilty” of such practices!

  9. Geoffrey says:

    I voted “No, I hesitate about such a move.”

    As much as I love Mass in the Extraordinary Form and very much pray for the “gravitational pull” to happen in regards to a “restoration of the sacred”, I think there are some things that aren’t entirely essential. And if the minor orders are restored, what will happen to the instituted ministries of acolyte (subdeacon) and lector? Whenever discussing the return to former practices, one should ask “Will this help in the restoration of the sacred?”

  10. Supertradmum says:

    I wouldn’t have to tell my son to get a haircut-bring it back, please.

  11. PostCatholic says:

    I’d prefer that your bishops rely on a willing heart more than cattle brand. But as a non-Catholic this isn’t a big deal for me. I just would hope someone could change his (almost typed “or her”) mind about their career without an external mark imposing a shame.

  12. Rev Mr Flapatap says:

    Before I respond, would that apply to permanent deacons? In my case, with my genes, it would probably mean for a year or so before nature runs its course anyway…

  13. Random Friar says:

    I think it would stress the distinctiveness of ordination. It also gives a certain sense of progression on the way to priestly or diaconal ordination. The trouble I see is that some seminaries, if instituted, would muck with it to make it more “meaningful.”

    @Rev Mr: My dear deacon, yes, it would, since you too are clergy. Get those clippers out!

  14. ReginaMarie says:

    In the Eastern Catholic Churches, one will sometimes see the priest “tonsuring” the child who is receiving Baptism, Chrismation & First Holy Eucharist.

  15. Andrew_81 says:

    While I would whole-heartedly like to see the minor orders restored (along with First Tonsure), it seems that the minor orders (and subdiaconate) were sloughed off for purely practical reasons, and those who wish their restoration also desire it either for purely practical reasons or because they find it neat.

    Few see these orders for what they really are: Part of a Sacrament, and a duty-of-state.

    That means, that aside from simply having a man who can sing the lessons, ring the bells, or minister at the altar by right, because a man received part of Orders, he received a certain grace, and whenever he exercised his new duties he received more grace because of his order.

    A young lay man serving at the altar certainly receives grace in doing so, but the ordained Acolyte receives more, simply because he is exercising his duty-of-state by using his order.

    On the level of grace, beyond just the practical level, then, reinstating tonsure, the minor orders and subdiaconate as states, instead of mere ceremonies practices by traditional groups, would serve to increase the graces we seminarians receive — something which we very much need if we are to life up to the call to holiness.

  16. Anne C. says:

    I hate to display my ignorance, especially here . . . but my uncle was a Franciscan priest, “OFM,” which stands for “Order of Friars Minor” as far as I recall. He was tonsured, but on the rare occasion that he visited us, he would perform what is now known as the (yuck) “comb-over!” I am confused about the meaning of a “minor” order, and also the difference between a “friar” and a “regular” (for lack of a better word!) priest! He said Mass every day, and was even a Pastor of a parish for a time.

    [He also told “us kids” that “OFM” stood for “Order of Fat Men.”]

  17. Stephen Matthew says:

    Saint Meinrad Archabbey still maintains the traditional monastic corona form of tonsure for entering novices and at final vows. It is thought to be the only house that still maintains this practice.

  18. mitch_wa says:

    I answered yes, but should note that a return of the tonsure seems silly. I am all for a restoration of some of the minor orders, especially if we ordain men to these orders for purposes other than merely stepping stones to the priesthood. An established permanent(or semi-permanent) sub-diaconate would be a great addition to the church.

  19. MikeM says:

    I’m all for restoring minor orders. I don’t think making clerics run around [Why would they “run around”?] with a bald spot shaved in their head would be helpful in our society, though. I think that would only contribute to the mistaken impression many seem to have that Priests are something like space aliens.

  20. BTW…. please note that the POLL question says “First Tonsure”.  It doesn’t not ask of the tonsure for clerics should always be kept.

  21. 3D says:

    One of the poll options should be:

    “The minor orders are not suppressed because many hundreds of men in the Ecclesia Dei institutes receive them.”

    I have talked to many who have been ordained to the minor orders. They all think they are clerics, and they all believe that they have received minor orders legitimately. I think their belief is well-founded: The pope certainly is aware, and Cardinal Burke of the Supreme Tribunal has conferred them on numerous occasions (not to mentioned then many dozens of other bishops can Cardinal who have too).

  22. tioedong says:

    since few Americans would recognize what a tonsure meant, I think it would be silly.
    Better to get them a cross or similar item to identify them as clergy.
    And no, I haven’t noticed if they do tonsure here in the Philippines.

  23. vivaldi says:

    The Archbishop of Perth conferred the Clerical Tonsure and the Minor Orders on a young Diocesan Seminarian in Ausgust of this year.

  24. Mitchell NY says:

    Lay Catholics like to see the marks of Catholic Identity on Priests. Tonsure, Cassocks etc. When we see things that that we know that we are linked. The external sign often leads to a conversation or getting to know more about the internal signs that also link us. It is like being a national of one country being abroad and then seeing an outward sign identifying another person from your home country. An immediate link is established even if it is a smile or wave but will more often than not lead to an introduction and perhaps a friendship. Without the external signs that bond us in a deeper way it is all too easy to be invisible, lost in a crowd of others.

  25. thereseb says:

    I don’t remember tonsures at all from the 1960s. Most chaps then, my father included, had lost at least a little hair at the crown by age 50 – so I don’t really see the usefulness of tonsure as an identification – what do you do to see if they are a priest – check for stubble???

    Minor orders on the other hand should definitely come back as they are logical steps towards the priesthood. Are they included in the Sacrament of Holy Orders as grace bearing? or is that only for the final ordination as priest?

  26. Adventist says:

    Beloved Father, thank you for using St. Dominic as an example of haloful holiness. This quiet Dominican spirit always puts the dust in the eyes of emotionalism. Let the minor orders come back!

  27. Nicole says:

    I agree with what 3D wrote, there should be this such poll option:

    “The minor orders are not suppressed because many hundreds of men in the Ecclesia Dei institutes receive them.”

    though, I am also aware that Fr. Z introduced the article by noting that the minor orders were “repressed” not suppressed in 1972.

    Just for anyone’s interest, this is taken from the Council of Trent’s 23rd session on the True and Catholic Doctrine, Touching on the Sacrament of Order:

    Chapter II. On the Seven Orders.

    “And whereas the ministry of so Holy a Priesthood is a divine thing; to the end that it might be exercised in a more worthy manner, and with greater veneration, it was suitable that, in the most well-ordered settlement of the Church, there should be several and diverse orders of ministers, to minister to the Priesthood, by virtue of their office; orders so distributed as that those already marked with the clerical tonsure should ascend through the lesser to the greater orders. For the Sacred Scriptures make open mention not only of priests, but also of deacons; and teach, in words the most weighty, what things are especially to be attended to in the Ordination thereof; and, from the very beginning of the Church, the names of the following Orders, and the ministrations proper to each one of them, are known to have been in use; to wit those of subdeacon, acolyte, exorcist, lector, and door-keeper; though these were not of equal rank: for the subdeaconship is classed amongst the greater Orders by the Fathers and Sacred Councils, wherein also we very often read of the other inferior Orders.”

    “Canon II. If any one saith, that, besides the Priesthood, there are not in the Catholic Church other Orders, both greater and minor, by which, as by certain steps, advance is made unto the Priesthood; let him be anathema.”

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